Humanity Suite: Ross Hammond, Inspired by History and Art

Ross HammondHumanity Suite (Prescott Recordings, 2014)

Ross Hammond: Humanity SuiteWith Humanity Suite, guitarist Ross Hammond has created an extended piece that’s certainly free and aggressive but exudes a sense of serenity. It’s a free-jazz statement based on rhythms that become the foundations for individual solos — an uncluttered, free sound with lots of chances for soloists to soar.

We got tastes of this on Hammond’s quartet albums. The heart of the music is the same: Hammond’s fuzzed-out guitar, spinning bright and bluesy forms in a mostly contented spirit. I think of it as sunny, with an African influence, but Hammond can also pour it on. Early on Side 2, he turns up the electricity, egged on by Dax Compise’s splashy snare-and-cymbal playing for a tough-shredding solo. Eventually, he steps aside for another horn free-for-all that ends with a slowly fading triplet rhythm in 15/8.

Kara Walker's “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life),” It measures 12 feet high by 85 feet long. Source: walkerart.org; click to go there.
Kara Walker’s “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life).” It measures 12 feet high by 85 feet long. Source: walkerart.org; click to go there.

The occasion for the Suite was a commissioned concert at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum in October. It coincicded with an exhibition of works by Kara Walker, an artist who draws from African-American history for her works. She’s best known for silhouetted pieces set in the Civil War era, and she recently made headlines with an installation for the condemned Domino sugar refinery, a set of works crowned by a 40-ton sugar sculpture in the shape of a sphinx.

Inspired, Hammond decided to use the same sense of history, injustice, and truth-telling as the backdrop for the instrumental suite. It’s not tied to particular pieces of Walkers; it’s more about the spirit, especially when it comes to her detailed silhouettes that tell complete stories. That’s the sense he wanted to convey.

For all its bustling freedom, the suite carries a calm demeanor, a contented wisdom. The early mood is patient, set by open-air guitar lines and slow trombone melody, but around that, the horns calmly trace their own paths. Throughout the piece, the horns command most of the attention, not only in the high-energy solos by Catherine Sikora and Vinny Golia on sax, or Clifford Childers on trombone, but for their adept free-improvsed interludes between composed sections. A fairly long, busy improvisation for the horns in the middle of Side 1 is the perfect break to set up a new phase with somber tones against Clifford Hilders’ trombone solo.

Even during Hammond’s high-energy solo early in Part 2, which includes some high-voltage free jazz from the entire group, a sense of reverence pervades. Humanity Suite is meant to be weighty, and it pulls that off without becoming stiff or heavy-handed.

Humanity Suite is a vinyl release, but you can also buy it digitally at Bandcamp.